Strap kit down, buckle-up, enjoy… the never ending ride (Pt2)

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth is one of 38 trained British Army photographers. He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He is currently in Afghanistan as the Task Force Helmand Photographer on Op HERRICK 18.

Alarm clocks…

…Interesting things that we all rely on a day to day basis to meet our daily schedule. I hadn’t needed one so far. At Lashkar Gah, between all the guys in the morning who rustle around the tented accommodation at ‘sparrow’s fart’, the morning tent-shaking delivery of stores from whatever helicopter passes overhead, or the fact that there are plastic windows that are never closed in our pod, ever, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I will be awake with plenty of time on my hands to get to the gym, have breakfast and walk to work at an unbelievably slow pace.

Annoying as that all is each morning, what it does mean is I don’t have to worry about not waking up or setting an alarm. Ok, the helicopter may change its schedule, but the sun will definitely still rise, and I would risk my house on the fact that somebody will catch some part of their body armour’s male Velcro, on the female Velcro surrounding the tent doorway, and have to prise themselves off it. It’s not that noise that wakes me; it’s the angry vocal expletive that accompanies it that does… but also makes me chuckle.

So there I was at MOB Price having expected to be on a flight home, but instead being told that I was up and out first thing in the morning on another operation. It was around 2000 hrs when I finally got into the transit accommodation, and I was due to be up and out at 0300 hrs. I have no clean clothes, and not really any time to wash them. I had to dig into my kit, re-pack, dust everything off and charge all my camera batteries, which were flat. The unit’s press officer was looking me after. He was gracious enough to loan me a pair of clean socks for the off. I will get them back to him at some point..

I decided to take a chance and swill one set of underwear out in the sinks. I left it hanging outside the tent and hoped for the best.

I turned my camera kit around and re-packed and finally laid down at around 2200 hrs. As I laid there eyelids flickering, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no way of ensuring I was up ready to be out at three. Jumped out of bed, and ran over to the NAAFI. They had sold out of alarm clocks so I ran over to where the press officer worked. He had called it a night and I didn’t know where he lived. There was hardly anyone around camp to even ask, so decided to head back to my room. When I got back, another traveller had slipped in, and was just unpacking his gear. It was a cruel call, but I sweet-talked him into setting an alarm on his iPad to wake me up. Nice one.. Shut eye, at last.

Obsessive neatness

You never really get a good night’s sleep when you know you are up early. This was no different. I engaged autopilot from the second I heard the beep beep. Shower, shave. The usual drill, with eyes wide shut. I grabbed my undies. Yep, they were still damp, but that would be refreshing so on they went.

My transit accommodation was a good 10-minute walk down to the ‘dust bowl’. This was an area where visiting vehicles could leaguer up. It was a fairly enthusiastic walk as I had finally woken up and I knew whom I was going to meet up with. It was 32 Sqn, 3 CLSR and the men and women from the Combat Logistic Patrol I had been out with previously. (If you haven’t read that, I would ready that first, here)

I got down there and ‘tipped my hat’ to the OC, Major Rob Futter, and the Squadron Sergeant Major, WO2 Grant Turley. It was good to see them all again, as we had shared some laughs on the previous trip. This time, I was going to take a seat with the OC in his command vehicle, which was a Mastiff. The crew consisted of Taff, a Welsh Reservist, Britt, a man with obsessive neatness around the vehicle, Tex, the OC’s signaller and a crap-hand at poker (which reminds me of the 20 you owe me..) and the boss. They made me feel as welcome as ever. I was even given a computer to play around with in the back, and shown the text communication systems.

The OC filled me in on all the finer details of the plan. Simple as always. Convoy move to a location, rest up and be prepared to provide logistical support where necessary. As always, I squeezed out the information that was relevant to me. The whole task was going to last between three and nine days. I am sure I made the confirmatory sniff to the armpits of my shirt as subtle as possible when the OC gave me the time-frame. Actually, why was I worried? Even though the convoy was going to top my first bout of 26 hours by nearly another 10, I was in good spirits, because we could wash our gear at our end location; couldn’t we? Well actually, no. There was no room at the inn for the amount of axles we rolled with, so we were going to once again leaguer up in the desert. I even managed to crack a smile.

Once on the road I got down to the usual task of getting what images I could from the top hatch. We were trucking through the desert this time, and the scenery was different from the green zone, but unfortunately a bit bland.

Convoy

Convoy

I got convoy images, but wanted to catch the OC in his top cover duties as that made for a more interesting shot, and wouldn’t be posed. This proved more difficult than you can imagine. As a photographer, I wanted everything to be as ‘perfect’ as it can be, for the picture. Sure there are always outtakes and images that never see the light of day, but as this is a blog about photography, as much as it is about being an Army Photographer I want you to see the differences. During a convoy that is heading in one direction for hours and hours, it’s hard to get the shot you want (if you are only using available light) when the sun is in the wrong place. This is also made worse when you can’t be stood there for hours and hours. I was popping up and down as the patrol moved on and kept on checking on my friend, the sun.

Here is an image that doesn’t make the cut. The light is not that great.

The first go: bad light spoilt play

The first go: bad light spoilt play

However, when the ‘stars align’, in this case, the sun, the whole image can be turned around. I hope you agree, it was worth trying again and again.

Second time lucky: Same angle, different light

Second time lucky: Same angle, different light

Happy with that image, I sat down again in my seat and pondered the mysteries of life for another five or six hours until our first rest stop. I am aware that after my last blog a lot of people are interested in the bodily functions that us guys and girls have to do when we are locked in the back of a moving vehicle for so long, and need to keep hydrated. Let’s just say that as the hours roll on by, the collection of full bottles builds up at the back of the wagon. Fortunately, different manufacturers make bottles with varying opening sizes. Hang on, hang on; before you all run your minds off to the gutter please let me explain. The smaller water bottles are great for the tarmac roads, whilst the energy drink ‘Gatorade’ sized bottles are more your rough-terrain pee-bottle. If you use all your supply of larger bottles up too early in the journey, whilst still on the tarmac, then purging one’s self could become quite interesting when it comes to the uneven ground. Trust me; when the truck is bouncing in every direction, the last thing you want is to do is worry about a ‘rogue stream’.

 Bodo and Onyx

On and on we rolled. Mile after mile. I did laugh at the fact that I had only done a journey like this several weeks earlier and had decided that as good an experience it was; there wasn’t much photographic benefit to it. But, the juice was definitely worth the squeeze on this occasion, because I would be spending time with another group of very different people and getting to know how the CLSR does business in a Leaguer. Tex was good company too. He briefed me up on all the different nets the OC was chatting on, who to send texts to and when. It actually made the time pass by a little quicker being given something to do and not just be a passenger. I thank him for that. (But you still owe me 20)

Luckily for us, the journey was broken up with a five-hour stop over at a military base. In we rolled, parked up close and stretched our legs. I still laugh today as I recall watching a steady stream of people emerging from within the tightly woven vehicles in the general direction of the toilets, each person clutching a collection of bottles. Only the military would find this funny.

Break time for the convoy

Break time for the convoy

The guys got down to administrating their vehicles in all sorts of ways. Dust filters needed cleaning, water stocks had to be updated, and minor repairs had to be made when bit’s had been damaged on the terrain. It was still daylight, but the sun was fading fast. Camp cots were being positioned all around, and once food had been consumed, it was time for shut-eye.

I busied myself grabbing pictures, and managed to snap Taff in front of a setting sun.

LCpl ‘Taff’ Davies

LCpl ‘Taff’ Davies

During our short stay, I met another two dogs. One was a protection dog, Bodo a Malin-cross, pictured below, who was handled by Private Chris Jones Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the other was a black Lab called Onyx, a search dog handled by Trooper Jordan Davies. (A ‘Tankie) Bodo took an instant like to me. Or was it the other way around? I have always loved dogs and always wanted one, but couldn’t justify it whilst in the Army. I am away too much to stress about keeping it exercised. One day maybe.

A ball for Bodo, a military protection dog

A toy for Bodo the military protection dog

After a few hours shut-eye, we rolled out. Thankfully it was only another three-hour sprint to our final destination. In the words of the fantastic Tina Turner; “Big wheels keep on rollin’”.

As we pulled into our intended leaguer area, the Danes where pitched up beside us, and behind them as if by magic were the Warthog Group; they had pipped us to the post. I smiled, as I know I would have had a much comfier ride than the guys on tracks. There is always somebody worse-off. I went and said hello to the guys. It had been little under 48 hours since I saw them last, but it was like a year break, and the catch-up banter was cruel, in a way I believe only soldiers understand.

Back over at the CLP leaguer area, everyone was starting to pitch camp, and find his or her little spots for the coming days. I was met by a frustrated looking Britt, who had shoe horned himself out of the driver’s position only to find the rear of his truck had been messed up by yours truly. He quickly got on with re-administering it. I joked he would make a good house-husband and his frown deepened. As I came to realise over the time I spent living with this truck full of guys is that having someone who takes great pride in making sure that every detail is ‘squared-away’ is a real god-send. To Britt, this mastiff was his baby, and he looked after it, and thus, looked after us. So thank you, man.

My bed, bottom right. The wind and sand was unforgiving.

My bed, bottom right. The wind and sand was unforgiving.

One of the first things I noticed was how fine the desert sand was. It actually was more like dust, and there seemed to be a constant wind whipping up everywhere. Dust and sand got everywhere. There was no stopping it, and quite frankly, it was brutal. Nowhere was safe, less in a sealed wagon. It was a massive effort to keep all my kit and equipment clean and dust free. My two cameras took an intense beating whilst living here, but they still pulled through.

I set up my little living area. It wasn’t much. I hoisted up the satellite dish on to the roof and made a little working area. I thought this was going to be my office, but I hadn’t really thought it all through. I was hit with so many problems that I couldn’t have imagined. Up until now, I hadn’t really needed to communicate with the outside world, but I wanted to start sending updates back to HQ. For starters there was nowhere to charge my laptop and satellite. Thankfully, the ‘big-wheelers’ (Tank transporters) had a little gadget that converted 24v DC to a useable output. Next there was the sheer heat. At 42-45 in the shade, the computer does not do well. In fact, it doesn’t really ‘do’ at all. The trackpad does not sense your finger and the CPU overheats; probably from ingesting so much sand. Finally the battery power is greatly reduced. I am talking about a 30 minute window, if I could get the battery fully charged at all. The only charging window was when the trucks started up, and that was only twice daily, so I never really hit full charge. In reality, I managed to connect to the Internet for about 10-15 minutes daily. This was just enough to send an essential update to the real world. That was, until this happened…

Oops!

Oops!

Someone had accidentally broken the main cable that gave me precious contact. So everyone can blame the sun, the sand and whoever snapped my cable, as these are the reasons why the latest blog has taken so long to get to you.

The Littlest Hobo

Over the next few days I spent time capturing different parts of the day; morning routine, exercise and the dogs. I kept wandering over to see Bodo, who always greeted me with a smile. (You haven’t seen the last of him)

Me and Bodo

Me and Bodo

Cpl Gethin Hiscocks, 3 CLSR

The sand engrains itself into your skin throughout the day. Cpl Gethin Hiscocks, 3CLSR.

The Brits make use of the wind and a poncho, to pass the time. The Danish vehicles leaguered up in the background.

The Brits make use of the wind and a poncho, to pass the time. The Danish vehicles leaguered up in the background.

The Brits make use of the wind and a poncho, to pass the time. The Danish vehicles leaguered up in the background.

The Oscar Charlie prepares for the future.

I found a way to contact my boss using the text system in the vehicle. I had left a message and it had finally been received. I had been there a total of four days and had eaten far too much sand. My kit stunk. I had tried rinsing clothes through but only to have it dry stiff with infused sand. I was all pictured out. It was time to leave.

I managed to formulate an extraction plan, as I knew there was a resupply going to happen by helicopter. I was keen to get on a radio to my boss. Through the magic of radio satellite communications, Tex made it happen. I explained what I had done, and what my plan was to get out. My boss however, had different ideas. What he had found out was that there was another Op going on relatively close to where we were. Images were required, and unfortunately I was just too close to miss this opportunity. It was time to pack my bags. The ‘Littlest Hobo’ was on the move again. Just enough time to say my goodbyes and smash one last picture of Bodo and Private Chris Jones.

Bodo and Private Chris Jones

Bodo and Private Chris Jones

One last thing… Tex; you owe me 20!

To be continued…

Read Si’s other blogs here: Life Through a Lens…

Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot